|Alaska trip, Dana, Marilyn, Chris, and Evan, 2017
|Sea Ranch Friends, from left Ron Benner, Sue Ziegler, Marilyn, Seth Newsome
Positive experiences and good times are equally important in shaping a person’s personality. For example, although scientists rarely receive positive feedback, when we get a nice review or compliment from a student, it's a real rush. After my divorce, I spent a couple of years as a foot loose and fancy-free woman glad to be released from a difficult situation. Science was blooming and when I left for California to work on the oxygen isotope project, I met my future husband. People often ask how we met and it's a now “classic” story in our family.
In 1985 during my first sabbatical trip to work at Carnegie’s Plant Biology lab, I signed up for a whale-watching trip that took place on a Sunday on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th. Grey whales could be seen at Point Reyes National Seashore from the promontory where the lighthouse perches 100s of feet above the ocean. I didn’t have a car, so signed up to share a ride from Palo Alto up to the Visitor’s Center of Point Reyes with a Chinese grad student who had a new license and little familiarity with driving. The front passenger door of her car was inoperable, so I sat in the back seat with another woman. As we drove north through San Francisco’s hills, we clutched the doors in shear terror. When we assembled with the group, the leader of the trip asked if anyone wanted to ride with him in his VW bus. I leaped at the chance!
The leader was a good-looking trim guy with curly brown hair from Berkeley wearing a t-shirt and jeans. On our way to the lighthouse, he spotted a bobcat in a meadow at the side of the road. Even before we reached our destination, he’d pointed out about a dozen coastal bird species. Throughout the day, we chatted on and off, spotted whales breaching and exhaling offshore. At lunchtime, we shared sandwiches on a bench overlooking Drake’s Lagoon, where I told him about my research with stable isotopes. As the end of the day drew near, I wrote down my phone number on a scrap of paper and handed it to him, hoping that he’d call. He looked pleased, but answered, “Great, we could talk about your research some more.”
I called my friends in the following days and told them I was excited to meet this cool ecologist, Christopher Wood Swarth. By Wednesday of that week he called! We set a date for that weekend. On our first date, we ate beef tongue sandwiches at San Gregornio Beach and fried calamari for dinner. Why we chose those two weird foods, neither of us can explain, but we’ve never cooked them again. By the time my brief 6-week trip was ending, we had gotten to know each other and were ready to try out a long-distance relationship. We traveled back and forth from the DC area to California, culminating with a trip to Europe in August just prior to Chris’s fieldwork in Cameroon. It was an exciting day when he was able to call me all the way from the US embassy in Africa!
After over 30 years of marriage, I can look back and see what was important for us as a couple, a family, and as a working woman. Before our kids were born, we both enjoyed the freedom to work as long as we wanted and travel wherever we needed to go. When Dana and Evan were very young, we hired the most remarkable young woman, recently emigrated from Nigeria to be their “daycare mother” for their first 5 years. Susan Agugua, bright, perky, and funny, arrived every morning at 9 am, every bit as compelling as Mary Poppins. Having someone you can trust to leave your children with allowed both of us to keep our careers going while raising a family.
|Chris, Dana, Marilyn, and Evan: Christmas portrait, 2009
When the kids were in elementary school, I took them to school and Chris picked them up from after-school care. When one of them was sick, we put our “cards on the table” and negotiated who had plans that could not be changed and who could shift things around and stay home. Being able to pursue a scientific career requires work on weekends, remote locations, and dedication. Whenever possible, we took them to work with us including overseas field trips in Australia and Belize. Chris worked for almost 25 years at an ecological park, a veritable treasure trove of fun places for the kids to explore and learn about nature. Both Dana and Evan also spent time in my lab, weighing samples and washing glassware. Evan and several of his buddies even learned to run the mass spectrometers during their senior year in high school. For several years, the whole family trekked out to Southern California to do field work re-examining the San Jacinto Mountain ecosystem first studied in 1908 by Chris’s grandfather, Harry S. Swarth. They helped trap mammals, pressed plants, assisted with collecting and preparing bird skins for museums, collected insects, and monitored bats.
|Son Evan prepping samples GL 2009
Key to not running yourself into the ground with marriage, family, and a career is to keeping your mind engaged on where you are at that moment. When I was at the lab, I got my analyses done, my writing completed, and my students and postdocs trained. When at home, I enjoyed cooking the nightly dinner, made sure our home was pleasant, if not completely clean, and delighted in hosting other families at our house. Our home was a mecca for the kids’ friends after we installed a half-court basketball platform and a hot tub in the backyard. As I matured as a scientist, I was more confident in my role as a leader and frequently hosted dinner parties at our house for colleagues from around the world. I morphed into the role of “Science Mother” making sure postdocs and students were getting what they needed in their careers, as well as their personal lives.
In the past 25 years, I have made a point to mentor early career women as opportunities arise. I participate in programs with the Association for Women Geoscientists and the Geochemical Society. At the Carnegie and the University of California, I have been particularly outspoken about women’s rights as scientists and have spent many hours listening to and advising early career women. For most mentees, having a sympathetic ear to listen to their problems was enough. Other times, however, I needed to speak directly to Directors and Deans about abuses, in particular over sexual harassment and gender discrimination issues. These were not pleasant conversations and were outside of my scientific expertise, but in the few places where I have worked, it is essential that a woman in the profession provide guidance and advice.